Spoutin' Off: Is the music industry getting smart?

By Michael Rau

April 09, 2007

Wait... What's that I see in the sky? A pig? Okay. I don't know that this equates with the spotting of flying bovines, but the earth did move a bit in the entertainment industry this week with the announcement that Apple and the EMI Music Group had reached a pivotal agreement. It allows Apple to sell songs via the iTunes Store free of their onerous FairPlay Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme.

EMI is, of course, one of the four remaining major music labels, and their stable of artists is formidable. That they have recognized the gross flaws in the music industry's strategy to prevent music piracy through the use of DRMs speaks volumes about their clarity-of-vision for the future. Thank goodness someone in the industry finally gets it.

I've argued for years that treating consumers like criminals can only alienate the labels' customer base. Cretins determined to engage in piracy don't care about no stinkin' DRMs. And they're terribly unfair to legitimate consumers.

The theory, of course, was that if digital music downloads had integrated restrictions to the way they could be copied or played, people would be discouraged from engaging in piracy. This idea assumes that music pirates would bother to buy the tune from a legitimate source rather than just rip it themselves, or download it using any of the myriad less-than-legitimate online methods.

Anyway, there's been much praise for EMI's decision, mostly in Europe where FairPlay has been under attack from many governments, as well as by the European Union governing body itself.

The key salient points of the announcement were:

EMI's Music will be sold without Digital Rights Management restrictions through the iTunes Music Store.

These new songs will be higher quality (256kbps) and sell for $1.29/song individually.

DRM-Restricted songs at the lower quality settings (128kbps) will still be sold for $.99.

Albums will be in the new higher quality/DRM-less format but remain at the same price.

In post-release interviews, a spokesperson for the company is quoted as saying that EMI made this move based on research that showed consumers want DRM-free tracks. They also wanted to make clear that this is not an Apple-exclusive deal and that other legitimate distributors of digital music downloads can also provide their products in DRM-less formats. They said that the pricing structure and encoding rate policy for the iTunes Store were strictly dictated by Apple.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you download one of these songs, you can pretty much do anything you want with it - including loading it on to the music player of your choice (as long as it supports the .AAC format).

Granted, they're pretty pricey at $1.29 each (you can get songs for 29 cents a pop from eMusic), but the encoding is excellent and of course, you finally have the freedom to enjoy them as you choose.

But in the larger scheme of things, this agreement should break the DRM cycle once and for all. Some analysts are even predicting that Microsoft, which has been the primary evangelist for DRM schemes through the years, will be forced to abandon them itself.

Beyond that, it will force the other three major music labels to radically reevaluate their policies regarding DRMs - particularly if EMI's online sales show a significant increase as a result of their decision.

The big labels have been whining a lot lately about declining music sales. The deterioration of the music industry with its formulaic corporate approach to music is mostly responsible for that.

Pop music, whether it's got rock guitars, country twang, hip-hop cadence, or "American Idol"-type star appeal, totally dominates the charts these days. Probably half the budget (which can be huge) for a CD release goes to marketing. Why? Because this pop music, which the labels insist is what the public wants, isn't very good and needs all the help it can get.

Message to labels: Your sales are declining because so much of what you're foisting on the listening public stinks. You push one-hit wonders. You market so-called artists based on celebrity rather than talent. You want better sales? Give us better music.

Beyond that, embracing the digital age will be painful for the labels because they'll have to concede that the can no longer dictate terms in the marketplace. I believe EMI is moving in that direction and believe that the other labels will have no choice but to follow suit.

One more thing: Although EMI also controls the Beatles' catalog of music, it wasn't included in this agreement as Apple and EMI are negotiating a separate deal to finally release the Beatles discography in digital form.

So kudos to EMI. Thanks for being big-minded enough to recognize the error of your ways and embracing a new direction. Maybe the dinosaurs in your industry will follow suit, and if they don't, I hope you kick their hind parts in the marketplace.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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